Late summer is a good time for paying attention to grasses. Not boring old lawn-type grass, but tall grasses: the wild grasses that grow wherever people don't much value the land, and the tame productive grasses that are readying themselves for harvest in another month or two. Grass is remarkably beautiful stuff. As I was driving homeward yesterday afternoon, just before sunset, the sideways light caught a stand of wild grass--impressively tall stuff, imperially plumed, I don't know the name of it--turning the stalks to gold and the plumes to silver. Pure beauty.
But there's more to grass than beauty. Wheat is a grass; so is rice and oats and barley and rye and buckwheat and millet and sorghum and--unbelievably--corn and its ancestor teosinte. All the cereal crops are specialized grasses, bred to produce heavy yields of usable grass-seed, which is ultimately what keeps us and our livestock in victuals. In that sense, the psalm has it right: all (human)flesh is indeed grass. The only questions are first, what sort, and second, whether or not the grass first spent some time becoming chicken, beef, or pork.
But while all cereals are grasses, not all grasses are farmable cereals. That wild grass I saw all glorified in the sun doesn't produce enough of the right quality of grain to be worth planting and cultivating; otherwise it wouldn't be a wild grass. Wild grasses have their beauty, but farmers would rather they stayed in their place--outside the wheat field, please. Of these grasses-as-weeds, some, like quack-grass, are simply unproductive cuckoo-plants that take up space and nutrients that the farmer would rather use for crop-growing. Some, however, are nastier. Darnel, which is a wild ryegrass, has a couple of nicknames: "poison ryegrass" is one.
It has another older name: "tares."
And here I'd thought (when I read the parable in Matthew 13) that "tares" meant something mildly obnoxious, like milkweed or scotch thistles or purple loosestrife or dandelions--those boisterous, aggressive adventurers that plant themselves where they're not wanted. Or maybe (I thought) we were dealing with some perfectly innocent but nonproductive grass, something like the plumed grass I'd seen by the road, that crowds out the desired crop and doesn't produce. I hadn't realized that tares were a real problem. But they are.
The seeds of _Lolium temulentum_ are highly susceptible to ergot, a poisonous hallucinogenic fungus. Ergot is thoroughly nasty stuff. Not that farmers in Jesus' time would have known about ergot, but they would have known that tares were a real problem: not just a cuckoo plant but something that could make people really sick..
This is the weed that the enemy sowed among the good grain (probably wheat or barley) planted by the landowner in the parable. Whoever that enemy was, his act was full of real malice--not a mere prank, but an act that could ruin a crop and poison livestock and people. And the servants' urgency now makes much more sense: "master, this stuff is wicked awful, we've got to get it out of there, quick."
Letting the tares grow to maturity with the grain and harvesting them together was, from a farmer's point of view, purely lunatic. The problem is in the tare seeds. Harvest the two plants together, and you'd have a good chance both of mixing ergot-infected tare seed in with the good grain--ergot poisoning, here we come!--and of having the tares self-seed, to screw up the next year's crop.
Jesus' farming parables often have farmers scratching their heads, because what he says runs contrary to common sense. But while this parable may be agroculturally daft, it makes sense at a wholly different level.
We've taken this parable to mean that God will take the Good Guys (us, most likely), bundle us up and take us up into the Great Granary in the Sky, and God will take the Bad Guys (probably the other guys, unless we're being neurotic), bundle them up, and shove them into that Great Fiery Furnace YouKnowWhere. I've always had a problem with this view of things, because I can't seem to get away from two key realizations: (1) I'm a poor ornery sinner; we all are, and not one of us is truly good; and (2) God loves us anyway. Something here does not compute.
I've always been told that this parable is about sorting out Good Guys from Bad Guys; but what if it is, instead, God's instructions on how to handle evil? Tares are not evil; nor is ergot. They are merely a plant and its resident fungus getting on with their natural business, no intent there to do any harm. But humans are more than that, and therefore potentially worse than that. Whatever its source--Satan, if you believe in him. or the perverseness of the human will, or the cold darkness where God's light does not, for some reason, shine--there can be, among humans, malice and hatred, ill will towards others, the desire to do harm. We see it in wherever people casually abuse and murder others, in places like Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Columbine High School, and any quite ordinary playground or business office.
And our response is always helpless anger. We are enraged at the perpetrators; we want immediate justice, immediate punishment. Yet so that's what we're denied. The Klebold and Harris boys killed themselves, leaving us empty-handed. Someone who did us real and serious harm, instead of apologizing, shrugs and walks away as though nothing happens and we're forced to struggle with resentment. We want so much to settle the scores as though that would somehow put things to right, when really it doesn't solved a damned thing.
But that's not what the parable says. The parable says, Live with it. God will take care of it in the end. What if the parable is a call for the most radical trust of all: in the face of human evil, stand down and let God work? Now there's something that unnerves the hell out of us.
It makes me think of all the times that I've watched my community deal with malice. I'm not talking about people who are merely disruptive or ill-behaved or irritating; I'm talking about people who seem to take genuine pleasure in putting the cat among the pigeons, just to see how much upset they can cause. As near as I can tell, they do this for the pure fun of it and with no regard for what damage this might be doing. When I've tried to mix it up with people of this sort, I invariably find myself slithering headfirst into my besetting sin, "righteous anger"--really just self-righteousness, coupled with a combination of helplessness and rage. It's as though the fungus spreads to me, infecting me. I don't like that.
Moreover I find that my "righteous anger" doesn't fix the problem. If I blow up at the offender, I don't convert the person to a better frame of mind. These people aren't interested in changing; they're enjoying themselves too much. I might get a faceful of nastiness, but that's about the most results my "righteous anger" gets. And there's often collateral damage from my own attacks--other people offended or hurt by my anger. Attacking evil doesn't work, because we only get infected ourselves.
"But what about Hitler?" everyone inevitably asks, me included. We aren't supposed to be inactive in the face of human bad behaviour. We had a duty to rescue the victims of Nazism (a responsibility which, in most cases, Western countries burked). We have the right to define boundaries, personal or national, and insist that they be respected. We can stand up to bad behaviour and say "I will not accept this; it isn't right." We must support those who are victimized by oppression. We could, and should have, intervened to stop the massacre in Rwanda. God did not make anyone to be a doormat, even a handknotted Persian doormat, to be trodden on. He loves us too much for that
What we must, however, avoid is the romantic notion that somehow we can throw ourselves into the fray and--even through ultimate sacrifice--somehow manage to drag evil kicking and screaming into the light, making it cry "Uncle!" We cannot root out from other souls the darkness that makes these things happen. We can't even root out the darkness in ourselves, after all, for each and every one of us has a few good soul-smudges ourselves, some place where God's light hasn't reached yet. I'd say mine is that righteous indignation bit--real spiritual arrogance, that, with a large dollop of old unresolved anger. Indeed, "we have met the Enemy and he is us." Not one of us doesn't have his or her own particular shadow; the good ones know and own it, and have come to terms with it.
Maybe the parable reaches into our own particular selves. I cannot, of my own efforts, uproot the poisonous weeds that lie in me; they are too deeply rooted. They were planted by evil in the past, but like darnel, they're tough to get rid of. Their toxicity, strangely, arises (like darnel's) from innocent roots; I haven't been at pains to make my smudges any worse, and I suppose that's probably creditable. But now these weeds' roots are entwined with my good-seed roots and their stems with my good-seed stems. And so "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." With others' help, I can manage them as best I can, but I know that it's going to take God's grace to straighten the mess out.
Being a responsible person, I can try to moderate my own actions, behave myself, make proper choices, do my duty and the like, but it's such a struggle. Really, about all I can realistically do is to steer with the skid, nothing more. For while I hope I have patches of the Light in my soul, I know I have patches of cold and howling darkness, and I know that I often respond out of that darkness, even when it's the last thing I want to do.
I'm going to have to live with the splotch of my own imperfection until I come before God's judgment. And then he will sort me out, and get rid of all these characteristics and behaviour and scars, everything that is unproductive or counterproductive in my soul-making. He'll sort out the darnel in me, as well as the unproductive quackgrass and purple loosestrife, and take care of them, as I never can through my own will and strength. He will harvest the good grain, tossing it high in the air and letting the bad fall out. And then he will gather me in, cleaned and sorted out by his loving power.
There is that to look forward to. And in the meantime, I can at least try to keep up with the weeds, God helping me.